Green MP and Environment Committee Chair, Eugenie Sage

The chair of Parliament’s Select Committee looking at the Government’s resource management legislation wants the bills sent back for more public consultation.

The proposal would effectively kill any chance of the bills making it into law before the election.

Green MP, Eugenie Sage, stressing that she was speaking as a Green MP, not in her capacity as Environment Committee chair, told the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) conference in Auckland yesterday that the Select Committee process was moving too fast.

But whether she spoke as a Green MP or Committee chair is irrelevant; she is a powerful vote on the Committee, and POLITIK  understands she has discussed her views behind the closed doors of the Committee room.

She would be likely to get support from the ACT and National MPs on the Committee.

However, POLITIK understands the Minister in charge of the Bills, Environment Minister, David Parker, is in no mood to countenance any slowdown.

That means Labour will have to use its majority on the Committee to push the bills through.

The Committee only finished hearing the hundreds of submissions last week, but earlier this week, Committee members were given a 700-page Environment Ministry report on the submissions and deliberations on that began almost immediately on Wednesday.

It is that pressure that Sage is complaining about.

“I think we are going too fast for this,” she said.

Advertisment

“It is too important to get it wrong. It is proceeding at pace. The Government has made it very clear that they want it through before the election. That means by the end of August because Parliament rises. then.”

Sage said there was too much that needed to be changed in the 859-clause Bill.

“I don’t think that we can get it panel beaten appropriately even though everyone on the select Committee and all the departmental officials and select committee officials will be trying to do that adequately in the time we have available.

“I think it needs to be a genuine exposure draft. Go back out to public comment after the Select Committee has beaten it into the best shape that we can in the time available.”

POLITIK Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton

The difficulties faced by Select Committee members when they considered Government legislation were canvassed at the conference by a former National Environment Minister and now Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton.

He said he was trying to persuade Finance Minister Grant Robertson to amend the Public Finance Act to require that money spent on environmental initiatives be specifically accounted for.

“But I’m not planning to wait for that. I will produce from here on an annual analysis in the meantime to help select the Select Committee ask better questions,” he said.

He was sympathetic to the difficulties that Select Committees faced.

“Of course, it’s one thing to be able to ask the right questions; it’s entirely another to want to know the answers, and here we are going up against some of the shortcomings of our constitutional arrangements,” he said.

.He said the executive was well supported by officials; courts were similarly well-resourced.

“Can Select Committees in a single chamber Westminster Parliament really hold the executive to account.

“I make no comments on the diligence or interests of MPs. I was one, and I’m certain I could have done a better job, but the workload is heavy, time is limited and select committees are not where most MPs want to be.

“They want to be in the executive; after the next reshuffle if they are in the government caucus or after the election If they are the opposition caucus.

“Our system  creates a serious motivational  conflict for backbench MPs

“Government MPs are in the House to support the executive of which they aspire to be a part.

“They cannot be guaranteed to walk the road to Calvary, as Mike Minogue during the crises of the Muldoon era. “

What Upton might have noted is that the way Wellington works compared to the early 80s when Minogue and Waring were challenging the Muldoon  Government on an almost daily basis is changing.

POLITIK Ministry for the Environment Secretary, James Palmer

An example is the new Secretary for the Environment, James Palmer, who told the conference that his role went beyond that of a conventional neutral public servant.

He was now required, along with StatsNZ, to produce regular reports on the state of the New Zealand environment.

“We have the ability to start taking a view, and we need to be much more active,” he said.

Palmer said the philosophy behind environmental legislation and regulation was also changing.

“Our system was extraordinarily hands-off with a strong faith in the market and a huge emphasis on property rights that would be moderated by the pricing of externalities,” he said.

“We’re shifting from a focus on rights to responsibilities.

“That should go hand-in-hand. You can’t get rights in any politically durable sense without upholding the responsibilities.

“So that’s the exciting shift, which I think is coming at us fast.”

POLITIK Climate Change Commission chair, Rod Carr

However, the Chair of the Climate Change Commission and a former deputy Reserve Bank Governor, Rod Carr, offered a more free-market view of the economy and climate change.

He told the conference that the relative prices of various goods would change as externalities (environmental damage)  were priced into them.

He warned against trying to cushion the blow of those higher prices.

“ We will inflict an own goal if we don’t allow relative prices in the economy to change,” he said.

“in the 1970s, the relative price that we were determined not to change was our exchange rate with the world as we voted ourselves more wealth than we earned.

“And we saw how that fell apart in the reality of the change in relative prices; in that case, our exchange rates adjusted in 1984.

“The fear of not allowing the relative price of high emitting activities to rise is that at some point in the not too distant future, you will get that kind of discontinuity or adjustment again.”

Carr was addressing the central theme of the conference, which was that climate change now meant that our society was at a pivot point.

But the agenda was overtaken by Cyclone Gabrielle, and speaker after speaker referred to the damage from the cyclone, particularly the forest slash which had poured down rivers in Tairawhiti bowling all in its path.

POLITIK Dame Anne Salmond

University of Auckland Distinguished Professor in Maori Studies and Anthropology, Dame Anne Salmond, reflected a repeated view that we had not done enough to combat climate change, nor were we prepared for its consequences.

Salmond, who has a property in Tairawhiti, talked of her own experience during the cyclone seeing rivers and beaches choked with slash.

Her observations came with a subtle dig at the former Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

“We have to recognize the gravity and the urgency of the threats we are facing,” she said.

“There’s no point at all in declaring a crisis, for example, by declaring climate change a nuclear-free moment, if we don’t act with urgency on the basis of the very best information we have, “

Even National’s environment spokesperson, Scott Simpson, was not willing to defend the forestry companies.

“If forestry hasn’t already, then it is well on the way to losing its social license,” he said.

“When we talk to plantation foresters t; they will often say, well, okay, we changed our practices, we’re doing better.

“But the practices that have been changed seem to be practices that just make clear felling faster and quicker rather than anything else.

“The real challenge for present-day policymakers and politicians is to ensure that decisions made now are not going to become a cost either financially or environmentally on future generations.

“And I fear that if we don’t make some hard decisions now that will occur for future generations, we simply cannot allow it to happen.”

In some ways, the forestry slash was a sidebar to the resource management debate at the conference, but in another sense, it defined what is now the core environmental issue; climate change.